At least seven times during my screening of Sonic the Hedgehog, the first live-action film based on the classic Sega gaming franchise, I blurted to myself: “I can’t believe they nearly kept the old design.”
The nicest thing I can say about this week’s new movie is that Sega and Paramount dodged a monumental disaster. This film’s camera is in love with Sonic, the sole CGI-ified star. It constantly stares him down, lingers on his cartoon-bulging eyes, and allows the animation crew to sell his emotional state. Not that Sonic is a subtle character; actor Ben Schwarz (Parks & Recreation, the voice of Star Wars‘ BB-8) plays the titular role like a caffeinated 12-year-old, and it’s fitting. But the film’s heartwarming moments always include deep looks into Sonic’s eyes. That could’ve been very, very different.
Now, audience members can rest assured that this serviceable, acceptable, not-amazing-but-not-terrible family film wasn’t tanked by toothy, limber, squinty-eyed Sonic. With that crucial detail out of the way, the rest of the attached film isn’t as sensational or headline-worthy. The series’ first live-action film is neither a jolt to the pantheon of Sonic media nor a must-see video game adaptation. We’ve landed somewhere above The Angry Birds Movie, somewhere below Pokemon: Detective Pikachu.
A madman trapped in his own universe, not Sega’s
I land on an overall positive verdict mostly thanks to Jim Carrey’s whirlwind comedic performance as series villain Dr. Robotnik. His script has zero apparent ties to series lore (which, to be fair, is mostly two-dimensional cheese found in cartoon and comic-book adaptations). Instead, the writing and directing crew appear to have given Carrey full rein to play up the “egocentric, genius megalomaniac” archetype however he saw fit. Based on how far his character flies off the rails, with speeches perfectly synced to Carrey’s physicality and timing, I get the impression the actor ad-libbed what we get on-screen. Yet even if I’m incorrect, his rhythms and intensity fall into an incredible groove, as if he were teaching a masterclass on ’60s B-movie villainy.
To that end, neither Carrey nor anyone else here has an allegiance to a “Sonic-worthy” plot or references. When Carrey is hilarious, he’s acting like a madman trapped in his own universe, not Sega’s. And when Sonic is dashing around or fighting robots, the results rarely look like the action in the blue hedgehog’s classic games. He has maybe two “spin dash” moves throughout the film’s 90 minutes, and he rarely bounces on top of bad guys to destroy them. Not that it matters that much for the sake of the film, but I point it out for those viewers who might be dismayed that Robotnik doesn’t abide by series lore and trap woodland creatures inside of his robots.
Strangely, the filmmakers can’t get past a different superhero’s archetype: the Flash. Everything Sonic does in this film revolves around his ability to run fast, which they take to mean he has a mastery of time and space—that he can perceive the world around him in slow motion, or that he can run insane distances almost instantly. Most of Sonic’s visual gags in the film revolve around this concept, and a stack of licensed DC Comics books in one scene reads less like an homage and more like an open admission of a dry creative well.
Sure, he can slow time down, mess with nearby people while time’s frozen, and then call “time in!” to watch the sparks fly. It’s cute. I chuckled. But it’s not a very inventive twist on the ancient bullet-time concept. Why not make Sonic abide by the game series’ challenge of finding loops, ramps, and momentum-drivers to build his speed? Why not have him spin-dash to knock down walls? I can think of a bunch of silly, family-friendly gags that would revolve around those limitations and feel more authentic to the game series.
Someone get Sonic a map, please
Instead, we get roughly four laugh-out-loud references to the game series (including at least one awesome meme), bolted onto a plot that comes saddled with a few cockamamie jumps in logic. For starters, the film opens with a very odd Sonic origin story: he was raised on a magical island… by a mysterious talking owl named Littlefoot. (No, you won’t find this owl in any other existing Sonic media.) This brief hedgehog-and-owl sequence honestly looks ripped out of the tragic Sonic 2006 video game, and the only nice thing I have to say about it is that it’s brief.
From there, Sonic is ordered to use his magic bag of rings to warp from one universe to the next any time someone sees him using his super-fast speed. (Why must he always hide, as opposed to employing his powers for good? We never get a good answer.) This changes when he lands on Earth—more specifically, a small town in Montana—and begins creepily stalking a cop named Tom (played by James Marsden of Westworld fame).
Sonic’s loneliness gets the better of him, and he breaks out of his hiding hole to ask for Tom’s help. What does Sonic need? Why, a ride to the other side of the United States, where his bag of rings accidentally wound up. When asked why he doesn’t insta-run there himself, especially in an emergency, Sonic complains that he doesn’t have a map. I mean, the film could have sewn that logic up by giving Sonic a leg cramp, a vitamin deficiency, or something. But it’s not that kind of movie.
The film pits Tom and Sonic, who become pals during this road trip, against Robotnik, a US Government-sponsored researcher who apparently gets hired to clear up CIA-grade emergencies. The film’s best quality is its focus on these three stars, as opposed to a bloated and unwieldy cast of family-comedy characters. Marsden is particularly nimble at walking the delicate line between being Sonic’s disciplinarian and his pal—and delivering just enough tension before letting Sonic go ahead with his wackiest antics. Sadly, the supporting cast mostly fails at its role of providing comic relief, with the exception of Carrey’s right-hand man, a bumbling agent played by Lee Majdoub (The 100).
But Marsden and Schwarz are nowhere near the sweetness, comedy, and coming-of-age payoff we got from the leads of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, a film that also runs circles around Sonic’s CGI department. PDP crammed its scenes with dozens of impeccably rendered animal-monster things, while Sonic, this film’s sole CGI star, comes with some really otherworldly, awkward-looking rendering of fur and light bounces. More than a few times, I noticed strange reflections off of Sonic’s beady nose, which made me wonder whether this film could’ve used one more rendering pass. And the VFX people didn’t make up for this with their designs of Robotnik’s flying drone supporters; it’s all generic, laser-shooting robots from that half of the equation. (To be fair, their priorities probably lie elsewhere, and I don’t blame them.)
I’m glad Sonic had enough of its parts in place to get me through a viewing feeling entertained. But the only thing that would get me to recommend this film over other family-friendly options is, honestly, Jim Carrey’s performance. Nothing else in Sonic the Hedgehog feels particularly exciting, even within its specific niche of a clear “PG, not PG-13” rating.